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Police, coalition forge agreement to redirect arrestees

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Jermaine McNair tells a crowd at the Eppes Recreation Center about the Westgate project, which is designed to engage young people with their community.

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021717 Rose Glover

Beth Velliquette

Friday, February 17, 2017

Jermaine McNair has a plan and he’s been able to engage the police chief and a number of community groups and businesses to sign on to it.

Called the Westgate Agreement, he said it’s a way to bring police and the community together so that those who have become disenfranchised can learn to expect the police department will do something for them instead of doing something to them.

The agreement is designed to break the cycle of distrust and disengagement between communities and law enforcement and show young people how they can find their way by becoming a part of the community rather than running from it.

The agreement, which has been signed by Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman, calls for the police department to provide the Westgate Coalition the names of any young person between the ages of 16 and 26 who has been arrested or contacted by the Greenville Police Department in the West Zone every two weeks.

In turn the Westgate Coalition, which is composed of neighbors, mentors, service providers and other organizations, will assume responsibility for coordinating remedial services for the individual, the family and the environment they live in.

“This agreement is intended to invoke the restorative powers of sincere community involvement, and establishes a single-minded consciousness for the groups committed to the work,” it states.

McNair introduced the agreement Wednesday during a meeting of the Police Community Relations Committee, of which he is a member. He also works part time at Pitt Community College as an outreach coordinator and as president of the group, N.C. Civil.

Holtzman told the standing room only crowd at the Eppes Recreation Center that when he first became chief, McNair immediately approached him and began talking about the relationship between the community and the police department.

“He’s been a good friend to us, a good friend to our department,” Holtzman said.

McNair, who said during his presentation that he had grown up in west Greenville and had been a drug dealer, said the core of the agreement is the issue of police-community relations.

Over time, the police department was called for every problem, and they were allowed to use violence to solve it, he said.

The police were deployed, then more police and then military-style police, McNair said.

“What happened is young people grew up in communities and they consistently watched doors being kicked in, their friends and people that they knew and had come to love, they’re thrown on the ground, handcuffed,” he said. “Maybe they were too young to know what’s going on, but they were seeing this constantly in these neighborhoods.”

“So guess what happens?” McNair said. “The image of what law enforcement in a community means begins to change and you look at police officers and say, “When they come in, things get worse.’” 

So if someone hauls off and punches me in the face, I’m no longer going to call law enforcement, McNair explained. 

“Now I’m stuck as an individual or a community on how to defend myself,” he said. “We start raising our children ‘if somebody punches you, you knock their head off,’ and that’s what many of us were taught.”

It was two years ago at the February meeting of the committee that McNair said he called for people to become mentors for the young people in town who were struggling to find their way. That was the beginning and more than 150 people said they were willing to serve, he said.

Since then, McNair has been meeting with the chief, the city’s attorneys, council members, businesses executives at banks, Vidant Medical Center, print shops and bail bond companies to ask them to sign on to the plan.

The sociology department at ECU has signed on, and so have Uplift Comprehensive Services, The Association of African American Professors of East Carolina, The Mount Hermon Masonic Lodge, Born Bosses Urban Wear, Villa Verde Restaurant, The Gold Post Cafe, Nu Vision Digital Media Group, The Black Light Project, Greenville Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Pitt Community College Department of Outreach and the WIOA Youth at Work Program.

Now when the Westgate Coalition gets the name of a young person who has gotten in trouble or lives in a troubled environment, they’ll contact that person, assign them a mentor, makes sure they know about the services available to them, including counselors, behavioral health and mental health services, and eventually engage them in a project to help their community.

“We’ve got to do more than say, ‘Oh be nice. I’m going to take you out for ice cream and try to show you love and make sure you know someone cares about you,’” McNair said. “This is way bigger than that.”

The Westgate agreement creates a bilateral contract that says if you do this for us, we’ll do this for you, he said.

It begins to shape a new understanding between law enforcement and communities, he said.

The mentors have to speak the right language and meet the young people where they are, he said. 

“I’m not the system coming to grab you,” he said. “No, I’m an ally coming to work with and help you navigate your way through this system.”

“I can show you how I came up just like you, and I found my way by becoming more a part of the community,” McNair said.

Once the young person has started to engage and received some services, the next step will to be ask the person what would he like to change about his environment and let them lead a project to accomplish it. It doesn’t have to be a big project, but they’ll receive the support they need to complete their project.

Finally, the idea is that when the coalition receives a new list of names, those that have been going through the process will become youth mentors to a new group of young people.

The next event will be March 19 at the N.C. Civil Office at 800 W. Fifth St. It will be a block party with entertainment and a ceremonial signing of the Westgate Agreement.

Contact Beth Velliquette at bvelliquette@reflector.com and 329-9566.


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